Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Devil's Possessed (1974): or, Paul Naschy's Macbeth

If Paul Naschy, nee Jacinto Molina, aka The Lon Chaney of Spain, has a fault--and mind you I'm not at all prepared to admit he does--it is perhaps that his ambition so often outstrips his resources. Working with very low budgets in a country still plagued by the censoriousness of Franco's regime, a country that was largely without a tradition in horror/fantastique filmmaking before the man himself started forging his inimitable brand of monster-movie mahem, Naschy's dreams were almost always bigger than his ability to make them come to life. As a result, many of his movies require a certain forgiveness on the part of the viewer, a willingness to work with Naschy, to see what he was going for and thus partake in the perfect, glorious vision of what he assayed to sing, the strange melody underlying the final result. Many moviegoers, both of his time and today, have been sadly unable to make this leap.

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heaven for? Am I right?

Naschy is a student of history as well as of the macabre, and one of the historical figures that has always fascinated the man is one Gilles de Rais, a 15th-century Mashal of France who allegedly dabbled in witchcraft, devil-worship, and large-scale child murder. Naschy famously based his all-time wickedest character Alaric De Marnac of Horror Rises from the Tomb (1972) on de Rais, and portrayed him "with a vengeance" in one segment of his cinematic revenge-fantasy Rojo Sangre (2004). However, it was in 1974's The Devil's Possessed (aka The Marshal of Hell) that Naschy most closely investigated the legend of Gilles de Rais, though with characteristic flourishes and digressions such as his fans expect and applaud. The result, though it has its problems, is also not without its considerable pleasures.

Even the Land of Oz was not immune to the economic downturn.

Returning home after letting the English know what kind of warriors they breed in France, Gilles de Lancre (Naschy) is snubbed at Court, the king refusing him the honors he feels he has earned with his blood and blade. Greeted at his home castle by his incredibly hawt lady Georgelle (Norma Sebre, a feline Eurobabe with a sadly scant filmography), Gilles has decided to put his knightly days behind him and focus instead on more intellectual pursuits. "Now I am interested only in SCIENCE!" he declares, and immediately summons renowned alchemist Simone de Braqueville (Eduardo Calvo, also of The Mummy's Revenge and Curse of the Devil) in order to get his research on.

Research grants being as hard to come by in medieval times as they are today, Braque promises Gilles the sun, moon, and stars if he'll keep the gold coins a-comin'--or more specifically, the Ars Magnus, or Philosopher's Stone. "If I am provided with the adequate means," Braque boasts, "I will lay in your hands the darkest secrets of SCIENCE!" Of course in fifteenth-century France the scientific method was not yet quite so rigidly defined as today, and the materials the alchemist requires include beakers, large quantities of lead, and the blood of seven maidens to be collected according to a strict devil-worshipping ritual and then placed in a little test tube.

You have to admit: red really is Paul's color.

Initially Gilles recoils--"No, not that! Not murder! SCIENCE should not be related to crime!"--but Lady Georgelle shows herself as ruthless and power-hungry as they come, using visions of Gilles overthrowing the idiot king and ruling France in his stead (together with, presumably, the promise of access to her Secret Passage) to seduce her husband into agreeing to the alchemist's demands. It's not long before they're commissioning awesome Black Mass wall hangings and kidnapping maidens from the local peasantry in order to fuel Braque's blasphemous experimental engines.

Meanwhile Gilles' comrade-in-arms, Gaston de Malebranche (Guillermo Bredeston) has also returned from the wars, and is appalled by the abuses of power he sees all around him. Gaston shows himself a skilled swordsman of the Errol Flynn school, dishing out some keen-edged justice to a band of desperate highwaymen before schooling some of de Lancre's men in a beer-hall brawl, complete with chandelier swinging, tabletop kicking, and some fairly incredible springboard leaps. Still refusing to believe that his fellow knight could have fallen into such dastardly ways, Gaston determines to visit Gilles and get to the bottom of things.


Though it contains the devil-worship and witchcraft scenes that are staples of Naschy's horror output, The Devil's Possessed is not so much a horror movie as it is a period drama, or more appropriately a Hollywood-1940's style swashbuckler--think The Adventures of Robin Hood, but with blood sacrifice. Sporting his Alaric de Marnac beard peppered with traces of gray, Naschy plays Gilles de Lancre as an aging lion making one last grab for power before his strength and youth leave him forever. There's more than a bit of Shakespeare in there as well--Gilles is presented as a good man corrupted by his pride and desire for honor, led to greater and greater depths in pursuit of his single-minded goal. If you can watch Georgelle tempting him with the immortality and invulnerability the Ars Magnus will give him, and NOT think of Lady Macbeth, you need to hit the books again, kiddo.

Georgelle giveth head, and Georgelle taketh head away.

When a drunken feast at the Marshal's castle confirms Gaston's worst fears, the valiant nobleman joins a group of peasant rebels--headed by his hawt blonde cousin Graciela (Graciela Nilson)--to fight back against Gilles' power-mad abuses. This occasions an entertaining scene in their forest hideout, where Gaston goes through a sort of Robin Hood Olympics, shooting arrows from the sky and beating their best quarterstaffer with a stick in rapid succession in order to gain their respect. It comes to a head when a disguised Gaston enters a jousting tournament hosted by de Lancre; in a trial by battle, the miscreant manages to unhorse Gilles and put out one of the Marshal's eyes in the bargain! This badly damages Gilles' image of invulnerable warlord in the eyes of his subjects, but on the plus side it allows Naschy to rock the Snake Pilsen eyepatch for the rest of the movie, which I have to call a pretty fair trade.

With a peasant revolt looming and the treachery of Braque the Quack becoming clearer every day, Gilles finally goes round the bend into all-out madness, stabbing the alchemist and threatening to gut his sweetie before falling down in an epileptic fit, a malady to which the historical Gilles de Rais was reportedly prone. Having abandoned all pretensions to honor or goodness, Gilles instructs his men to bring in Gaston's whole fam damily for torture in order to flush the rebel out. "WE SHALL SPREAD BLOODY TERROR THROUGHOUT THE LAND!" the Marshal declares, and if you don't think he'll do it, brother, just watch him!

"Don't make me flare my nostrils!"

From there it's a short trip down to the crossroads, where Gaston offers his own life in order to spare Graciela and her father. Taking advantage of the knight's good nature, Gilles quickly recaptures the prisoners and takes all three to his dungeon for a right good torturing. Inspired by their leader's blue-blooded goodness, the peasants stage an all-out assault on the castle, taking the guards by surprise and gaining the upper hand. The Merry Men spring Gaston from the dungeon and rush to the ruined abbey where Gilles and Georgelle are set on sacrificing Graciela to Lord Satan. Gaston stops the ceremony in a nick of time, setting up the climactic sword battle we've been waiting for.

And what a battle it is! While most of the fight scenes in the movie have ranged from okay to ridiculous, this final battle between Gilles and Gaston, the two finest swordsmen in France, really lives up to its billing. Naschy swings his steel around like a berserker, setting upon his opponent with fierceness and rage, overwhelming him with sheer strength. Gaston must flee, roll, tumble, and scale the walls for position, occasionally gaining the upper hand through finesse rather than force. There are thrown daggers, backflips, and even a well-placed WWE-style dropkick from the Naschinator himself to get your heart thumping and whiten your knuckles. A really stellar fight, worthy of the best swashbucklers of any era.

"All right...who wants some?"

The battle ends the only way it can--with Naschy victorious--but sadly his soldiers have all been bested by untrained farmers. Gilles finds himself surrounded on a fog-shrouded hilltop with only his strong right arm, his good right eye, and his bravado between him and Grim Death at the hands of the rabble. In what Robert Monell on Naschy.com calls "an unabashed homage to the climax of Kurosawa's THRONE OF BLOOD"--itself a version of the Macbeth story--Gilles goes out in a hail of arrows while believing himself invulnerable, finally in possession of the Philosopher's Stone.

I said at the beginning that The Devil's Possessed has its problems, and it would be irresponsible of me to gloss over them here. Though they created an icon with a similar character in Horror Rises from the Tomb, Naschy and director León Klimovsky just can't seem to work the same magic with Gilles de Lancre. Naschy writes and plays the character as a reluctant monster in early scenes, tormented by guilt for the acts his lust for power seduces him into--which is well and good, but doesn't play very convincingly next to scenes of Gilles overseeing a peasant's torture, ordering another's eyes to be put out, and getting all rapey with the maidens slated for Scientific Research the next day. It was actually a relief when Gilles lost the eye and became an unrepentant villain, as it seemed to me that's when Naschy got a handle on the character and could really sink his teeth into the eeevil meat of it.

"Here comes the One-Eyed Monster, baby!"

Klimovsky's direction is faulty in other ways too. The most glaring fault for me was the director's use of music--or rather, his refusal to use music when it was sorely needed. Scene after scene of fighting, battle, and pillage take place without any music at all--the beer-hall brawl is unscored, as is the joust where Gilles loses his eye. Even the final climactic battle between Gilles and Gaston plays out mostly silent. Knowing how much the Euro directors of the period availed themselves of library music for even the most innocuous cues, I can't help thinking a little generic swashbuckling symphony could have gone a long way. The only place there is consistently music is during the Black Mass scenes, and it's made up of incongruous sci-fi sounds and keyboard farts. The cinematography is mostly static, with the exception of one standout scene in which Naschy delivers a going-nuts soliloquy while being zoomed and circled by a fisheye-lens--an effective directorial flourish that sadly serves to underscore how uninteresting the rest of the shots have been.

The pacing is a bit questionable at times as well--the film felt like it could have done with a tighter edit. One scene in which Gilles goes on a spur-of-the-moment trip to do penance for his crimes at a monastery, then ends up slaughtering the group of monks who greet them, is entertaining but kind of pointless. Likewise, a raid on the castle by Gaston and his men to rescue an already-dead comrade offers the opportunity to buckle some swashes, but otherwise accomplishes nothing. That said, the costumes are lush and apparently historically accurate, the locations are magnificent as always, and the babes are easy on the eyes, which is always nice. (The edition I had was apparently the clothed, not for export version--some nude scenes were obviously cut.)

"They have me tied to the stake. I cannot fly,
But, bear-like, I must fight the course."

The acting has some high points, though. Naschy is wonderfully evil once he turns it loose and goes for broke with the Gilles character, and it's fun to watch him in the aforementioned soliloquy and in his last stand at the climax. His right-hand man Sillé, played with Vincent Price/Basil Rathbone smarminess by Mariano Vidal Molina, is an effective performance, and there seems to be some near romantic tension between them, especially when they sweatily cross swords in training (ooer). Sebre is great as Lady Macbeth/Georgelle, investing the character with enough evil intelligence to make you wish she'd appeared in more than a handful of movies. The other players are merely serviceable, though it's fun to see Luis Induni of Dr. Jekyll meets the Wolfman and Night of the Howling Beast as a rebel, and Sandra Mozarowsky, who made such an impression in the recently reviewed School of Death, shows up as one of the ill-fated maidens. So watch for that.

In closing, The Devil's Possessed is by no means the best film in Naschy's body of work--as prolific as the man was, it may not even break his top 20. But I still found it fascinating in its Shakespearean echoes, its epic history aspirations, and its occasionally compelling scenes. A success? Perhaps not. But as a fan I can see what Naschy was aiming for, and even if he didn't get a bullseye, it was exciting to watch the attempt. 2.5 Thumbs. Yeah, I'm biased. So sue.

"Less than 3 thumbs? Vicar, how could you?"


The Duke of DVD said...

*wipes tear from his eye*

Oh Vicar. Naschy Week is starting off with a bang, fo' realz. Naschy does a fucking DROP KICK in this? Oh dear, a must watch for sure! Bravo once again on an outstanding review. The screen-caps simultaneously had me guffawing and mildly turgid.

Jenn said...

If I too possessed the adequate means, I would place more than the darkest secrets of SCIENCE in your hands, Vicar, IYKWIM ;)

This sounds like it has some dizzying highs as well as some terrifying lows, but I definitely wouldn't mind laying my eyeballs upon some Naschy drop kick action.

Paul Cooke aka Buckaroobanzai said...

Love your site Vic & great to see some Naschy Birthday love being laid down here. Looking forward to the week ahead. Keep up the great work. Paul


Michael J. said...

Biased, Vicar? Re: the Naschinator? I hadn't noticed.
Okay, I arched an eyebrow at the 2.5 rating -- given your obvious reservations with the film. But its shortcomings were well expressed, with their groundwork firmly but forgivingly laid. And as always your writing gave me a consummate feel for the picture. And the review was a hoot to read. And it made me want to watch the freakin' movie! (Add another one to the list, thank you.) Great work as usual.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Duke of DVD--It's not a party until the Duke is mildly turgid! ;) Glad you enjoyed the review--and I can't wait for your entry tomorrow...as it were. :P

@Jenn--Ooer! ;) The Naschy dropkick is definitely worth the price of admission. Some of the fight is likely a body double, but I kind of need to believe Jacinto did the dropkick himself. :)

@Paul Cooke--thanks for the kind words! Naschy was literally the inspiration for this blog, and the Duke and I are never shy about letting our mancrush show. Viva Jacinto!

@Michael J.--even lower-rung Naschy is greater than No Naschy. That's just SCIENCE. :) I've yet to find one I'm sorry I watched, or wouldn't watch again, for that matter. The joy and enthusiasm he puts in every flick cannot be denied, and I find it irresistible. As should be painfully obvious at this point. ;)

Stay tuned!

Al Bruno III said...

I have got to get around to seeing more of Naschy's material...

Good post as always...

Richard of DM said...

Great review. I just picked up this title myself. Looking forward to checking it out.

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